Pye was a British electronics company which manufactured radios, TVs and record players, which gave them more music connection than RCA in America who did fridges and cookers as well. The company was founded in 1896 by W.G. Pye to manufacture scientific instruments. In 1922, they took the lead in producing new radios for BBC transmissions, and went on in 1937 to become one of the first television manufacturers. Their reputation for innovation was sullied in 1955, when they produced early TV sets which could show BBC (earlier sets were fixed, BBC only) and the new ITV channels. Their tuners did not work well, but they soldiered on and were innovators in transistors.
Like Sony they moved from hardware manufacture to acquiring a record label. Pye became the fourth major record company in the UK with a small stable of labels.
Note that their early hardware advertising stressed hi-fidelity, but also focussed on AM / FM radio tuners rather than record turntables.
In 1953 they bought the small Nixa record label, which had been founded in 1950 to license the new American long players for sale in Britain. They added Petula Clark’s label, Polygon, in 1955.
You can see how Nixa begins with a smaller logo than Pye, then the logo size switches over to make Pye more prominent.
In the 1950s, Pye had run labels for Mercury and Vanguard. The 78 rpm sleeve lists Pye, Nixa, Mercury, Vanguard and Emarcy which had departed by the later 50s.
Pye is the group name. Nixa the actual label.
The 1957 advert lists just three labels … Nixa plus two American labels : Vanguard and EmArcy. EmArcy was the jazz division of Mercury which they also distributed … but the advert is in a jazz magazine.
Records were subsequently released as Pye Nixa. There’s a transistion over the next few years as the Nixa logo dominates, then the Pye and Nixa labels become equal in size, then Pye is larger than Nixa, and finally Nixa is dropped.
In 1957, ATV (Associated Television) owned by Lew Grade acquired 50% of Pye Records.
It became a wholly-owned subsidiary in 1966 when they bought the rest, and the companies worked from adjacent office buildings in the Edgware Road, near Marble Arch. The studios were called Marble Arch Studios. Pye-Nixa was changed to Pye in 1959.
Because they had been faster into transistors than some rivals, in the mid sixties they were the most popular car radios. Note that they’re priced in guineas. Pye were fond of guineas. A guinea originated with lawyers … the lawyer received 20 shillings (£1), and the clerk received an extra 5% (one shilling). Hence lawyers and medical consultants came to charge in guineas … a habit that went through to horse-racing where prizes were in guineas.
Pye Jazz was the first subsidiary label.
Pye Nonesuch was a spoken voice label, started in 1961
In 1959, Pye International was formed to distribute American labels. On the NME advert from 1962 Pye International says ‘Incorporating the Colpix and Chancellor labels’.
Pye Jazz says it incorporated Chess Checker (which already had migrated to Pye International, and Argo, which Decca had just bought).
Palette distributed some British easy listening and comedy as well as some European material.
In 1962 they launched Piccadilly for newer artists (and scrapped Palette).
Around the same time, a dozen singles appeared as Pye Zodiac,, one for each astrological sign. They had astrological comment on side one, with appropriate music on side two.
This is a 1959 showcase release, sold at a budget price before Pye launched Golden Guinea. In some ways this is the early predecessor of The Rock Machine Turns You On and the era of sampler compilations. Its purpose was to advertise a new, faster distribution system for Pye discs. It exemplifies ‘Pye 1959’ if nothing else.
Pye and colour coding
In the late fifties, Pye made the distinction between genres on the back of EPs by labelling them Pye: plum label (popular), Pye: black label (jazz), Pye: red label (classical) Pye: dark blue label (Pye-distributed Vanguard), Pye: turquoise blue label (Pye-distributed Mercury), Pye: orange label (Pye-distributed Emarcy, Mercury’s jazz label), Pye: Light blue label (early Pye International), and Pye: green label (spoken voice, sound effects, religious, Christmas carols). The green label isn’t seen too often, being on the likes of The Hampstead Parish Choir and Hull Junior Orpheus Choir.
It seems confusing to have both a turquoise label and a light blue label, but Mercury had shifted distribution to EMI before Pye International was launched so they never co-existed.
Plum label … popular
You Are My Lucky Star: Petula Clark 1957 Pye-Nixa
Black label … jazz
Backstairs Session: Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group 1956 Nixa Jazz Today series Pye black label
Red label … classical
The Planets- Mars, Jupiter: Sir Adrian Boult, Pye-Nixa red label 1958 (recorded 1954/55)
Green label … sounds, miscellaneous
This Is Britain: Vol II. Pye green label 1958
Turquoise label … Mercury
The Fabulous Platters Vol. 3: 1957 Mercury, or rather, on the reverse Pye Turquoise label
Orange label … EmArcy label (jazz)
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley In The Land of Hi-Fi: Cannonball Adderley Pye Orange label for Emarcy jazz recorded 1956, 1957 release
Dark blue label … Vanguard (blues, folk)
Little Jimmy: Jimmy Rushing & His All Star Band 1957 Pye Dark Blue Label (Vanguard)
Light blue label … Pye International
Nina & Frederick Vol 1: Nina and Frederick, Pye International
Later red label … classical
Delius: Irmelin / On Hearing The First Cuckoo 1957, Pye Red Label
The distinction is the same on singles, but you can see the colour without needing the label on the rear of the EP sleeve. Maybe it was there to help shop assistants. Other labels had colour coding, but were not explicit about labelling. Red seemed the preserve of classical. Philips, RCA, Decca all used it at times.
The Pye plum got darker as the years progressed and the artists got riper. You could say Emile Ford’s plums were darker than Gary Miller’s, but you probably wouldn’t get away with it. Pye liked colour coding. Budget was yellow, and Palette was red (though not described as such, and not remotely classical). The Pye Jazz name took over from Pye black label, then in 1959 Pye International’s Light Blue label replaced Mercury’s turquoise label. The reverse of EPs have “Plum label” “Dark blue label” “Turquoise label” etc. The colour definition was eventually dropped.
Pye in 1962
By the time of New Musical Express’s 10th anniversary, Pye were running four of their own labels, as well as distributing others: Pye, Pye Jazz, Pye International and Piccadilly.
Around the same time, a dozen singles appeard as Pye Zodiac,, one for each astrological sign. They had astrological comment on side one, with appropriate music on side two.
From 1963 to 1965, a number of the American labels were moved out of the Pye International umbrella and were sold under their own labels: Cameo-Parkway, Colpix, Red Bird, Kama Sutra, Hickory, Chess and Dot.
Comparative airplay of Pye group records on Radio Luxembourg, 1960 to 1963:
Most of the subsidiary labels here came in after 1963. Reprise was a distribution deal. These Pye Group percentages are averaged over the 3 years 1961-63 inclusive but the figures would differ according to date. For instance at the start of that period, and in 1960 generally, the Pye label dominates (80% or more). By 1963 the introduction of so many new labels puts Pye only on an equal footing with Piccadilly and Pye International. As a label Pye Jazz has a better percentage than otherwise throughout these years of the Trad Jazz boom (61-63); a few years later it will have dropped from view.
The Various Artists EPs cheerfully mixed artists from different Pye imprints.
Hitmakers series gallery … click to enlarge
In 1964, three The Hitmakers were released at the same time (NEP24213, NEO 24214, NEP 24215) with no numbering system and a mixture of tracks from various labels: Pye, Pye Jazz, Pye International, Piccadilly and Red Bird.
Kent Walton’s Honey Hit Parade was a 1962 LP named after the Radio Luxembourg show. Decca also did a tie in compilation. The Pye compilation mixes Pye (The Brook Brothers, The Viscounts, Lonnie Donegan, Miki and Griff, Petula Clark, Gary Miller and Benny Hill) , Pye Jazz (Kenny Ball, Bob Wallis) and Pye International (James Darren, The Marcels, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry) releases.
The hugely successful Golden Guinea label pioneered semi-budget LP records from 1957. At a guinea … 21/- (twenty-one shillings, or £1.05) they were a third cheaper than standard LPs at 32/6 (thirty two shillings and sixpence, or £1.62). In the mid sixties, they added Marble Arch, a true budget LP label, with back-catalogue reissues of records retailing at 10/6 (52p). In 1966, ATV completed its takeover of the entire record division.
Like Decca and EMI, Pye had a classical reissue label, Pye Collector but it was much less successful. They’d knocked out cheaper versions on Golden Guinea, then even cheaper versions on Marble Arch, a decade earlier.
Dawn was added as a “progressive” label in 1970, like Decca’s Deram and EMI’s Harvest. The aim was to release folk, blues, jazz and progressive music.
Prelude was an offshoot of Pye’s failed US label (1974-76) which also issued discs in the UK.
The rights to use the name Pye expired in 1980. According to Simon Napier-Bell, Pye electronics asked a mere £2000 for the continued use of the name, but the head of ATV threw a fit and declined to pay. Instead the name PRT (Precision Records and Tapes) was adopted. See PRT. PRT re-used the Nixa name for a classical list in 1987.
The Sanctuary Music group took over the rights and issued CDs of Pye artists. In 2006 they began re-using the name and logo for indie bands. Universal abandoned this when they acquired Sanctuary just a year later.
Currently Warner Music Group controls the reissue catalogue via BMG-Sanctuary.
There are linked sections for each Pye Group label.
Century 21 (in Children’s Records section)
more to follow